Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
Edited by Hilary Jenkins
Penguin Books 2001 (1966)
“Great mistake to go by looks, one way or another.”
— Aunt Cora to Antoinette, Part One Wide Sargasso Sea
As a study in disintegration Wide Sargasso Sea is relentless. The main protagonist is forced to watch her mother gradually fall apart, and then she herself follows a similar journey. In fact it’s hard to name a single character who doesn’t follow a downward spiral. There have been many analyses of this mid 20th-century novel that distinguish it as feminist, post-colonialist and postmodern, and describe it as a prequel or an example of ‘writing back’ or rewriting (it overlaps the chronology of its literary inspiration). Many make reference to ‘the madwoman in the attic’, thus bringing the most marginalised figure in Jane Eyre stage centre and turning Wide Sargasso Sea a reconfiguring of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. No doubt all these things are true, but anything I add to these observations would be superfluous and, anyway, beyond my capabilities.
So I shall instead focus on just three points — madness, fire and poison — and put down my thoughts on how they inexorably lead to the disintegration of the significant actors in this tragedy.